It was a coal-powered green-skinned vintage train, of the type that, as I had seen in stereotypical 70s Chinese films, was once laden with millions of zealous Red Guards from every corner of the country on their way towards Tian’an men Square.
Now, carrying only sixteen tourists in its empty and anachronistic carriages, the train tottered across the Yalu River from Danton, China to Sinujiu, North Korea. Serving as a time machine transporting us back to an age I was only familiar with from old films, its speed was overwhelmingly fast.
Only twenty minutes after boarding the green coach, when I looked out of the window to the platform of Sinujiu station, my sight was bombarded with ubiquitous propaganda, portraits and words of dramatic weightiness in their red ink that raised alternating waves of fear, curiosity and uneasiness in my head.
I was not the only one who sensed the changed atmosphere; Shane, one of my two companions, glanced through the same glass as I at short tan-armed and well-armed Korean guards and officers patrolling the railways, and commented: “You know what, talking about the sense of intimidation, the interesting part is that I really need to go to the bathroom…”
“Scared? Already pissed your pants in twenty minutes?” I interrupted him with teasing.
“No, I am saying it’s such an ordinary easy and casual conduct to go to a bathroom, see, it is probably just over there in the station twenty meters away from our train. But now, in such a setting, I am too intimidated to even take a single step; I am even paranoid about if it is permitted to leave for there, you know what I mean?”
Our third companion, Gang, agreed saying: “There is a pervasive air of control and constraint out here.” His words were followed by a moment of tense silence.
“Don’t worry. It was never a part of Juche Philosophy to lock people’s bladder, but brain and mouth.” I broke the silence with laughter. At the same time, the tour coordinator from Korea started to take away and keep the tourists’ passports for the duration of our stay in the DPRK.
However, even though at that time we had been too intimidated to walk even meters away to a bathroom, we did something much less cowardly three days later.
After dinner we came back to our hotel on the north edge of Yanggak Islet, which lay in the lower reach of Taedong River dividing the city into west and east. Adjacent to yet isolated from the heart of downtown, our 47 forty-story Yangako International Hotel acted as the primary reception for foreign visitors to this “showcase capital”.
With a revolving restaurant in the penthouse, and a casino underground, it was not a hard job for tourists to kill the time while so caged. However, unlike our fellow Chinese tourists who rested themselves with these amenities after a day spent being taken around, our journey in this city had just begun with the sunset on the far end of Taedong River: we would attempt to escape from the Yanggak Islet to explore Pyongyang on our own.
The last two days’ tour had been anything but fascinating. We went to Mount Myohyang, which I had originally taken to be a place for natural sightseeing. However, it turned out to be a humongous underground palace in the mountain for an extravagant exhibition of the treasures of the Kims’ that were presented to them by other countries diplomatically. We then spent hours listening to the tour guide chanting out the story of Kim Il Sung while visiting Mangyongdae, the place where he was born and spent his childhood. The tour to the Schoolchildren Palace, Kim Il Sung Square, North Korea’s upstaging take on L’Arc de Triomphe and several other strongly ideologically charged memorial sites did not satisfy me either.
What I want to see of the city was something “depoliticized”, something real about the daily routines of the inhabitants, something trivial but genuine. Otherwise, the journey would be but a waste of browsing the superficial and grandiloquent propaganda pet on stage for tourists like us.
When night fell, we went out from the front gate scrupulously. However, just around the parking lot we met Han, the Korean tour guide and security official who spoke fluent Chinese and had claimed to us of having eight girlfriends in Beijing after we treated him with beer on our train to his country. For most of the time though, he looked stiff and stern-faced. “Where are you guys going?” Han demanded on seeing us in the lot.
“Just taking a walk around. I had too much to eat. The hotpot was so yummy, wasn’t it?” Gang tried to shift the topic.
“Yeah, that was good… anyways, listen, you can’t walk too far away, and come back as soon as possible.”
After making sure that Han had returned to the hotel, we continued walking. It was easier than we thought to escape, even though we were still a little vigilant and nervous. After fifteen minutes walking south, we were assured that nobody would stop us, and our nerves settled. There was nothing but excitement left in our minds as we checked the map of Pyongyang bought from a souvenir shop with a flashlight while heading onward.
The plan was to cross the river to the west, walk through the central district, and go north to the Kim Il Sung University if possible. As I learned before from a documentary, people in Pyongyang spent most nights without electricity. When we looked far off from the Yanggak Bridge, the sky-scraping Juche Tower stood on the far edge of the Taedong River beaming with white glare, leaving the rest of the city cloaked in darkness.
Glancing around, our view of Pyongyang seemed plain and monochrome. Those images that I was accustomed to filling my sight, the logos, neon lamp, advertisements, fashion, and celebrities of consumerist culture, were all filtered out. There were just white buildings, gray broad streets, and undecorated green trees. Everything lay naked in the fluorescent-free darkness. Still, despite this darkness, we were still noticeable as all around us the people wore a badge of the Great Leader over their heart, but either nobody noticed, or they didn’t care and we passed by un-harassed.
At this time of the day, everything seemed to take back seat to the simpler face of life. As we walk through the central district, more and more people came across us from the gloom. Some were groups of men wearing old-fashion shirts chatting and smoking along the street with briefcases under their arms. Some were middle-aged women strolling along with one hand carrying plastic bags and the other holding their children. Some were young male and female students in white uniforms, giggling and chasing each other around the bus station. Some were troops of the People’s Army in formation marching across the blocks in silence.
Life was nothing imperfect because of the darkness that had been taken for granted.
Surprisingly, we found a small grocery store still open at the corner of a street with a light on. The saleswoman was cleaning up the glass counter, in which there were still some basic food supplies unsold, such as soy sauce, salt, oil and vegetables. A thick book with names and numbers was hung on the wall. It must have been the register of the residents’ monthly consumption, as every deal was under strict scrutiny in their planned economy.
Even knowing it was improbable, Gang tried to ask the saleswoman to trade for some North Korean won for as keepsake. However, she frowned upon his broken Korean and ridiculous body language. At the same time, I saw a boy with a “red scarf” around his neck reading with head bent at the corner. Sitting next to the kid I peered over at what he was reading, and found it to be an English textbook with cartoon illustrations and simple sentences with Korean translations underneath. He stopped for a moment to pass a gaze at me, and then continued reading confidently with a strong Korean accent.
“What do you want to do?” the boy voiced. “I want to play…”
“Football” I continued, as he was stuck. There was a sketch of people playing soccer in the blank space of the page, clearly in the kid’s own hand. It reminded me of the doodling I used to do in class while bored. “Jong Tae-Se?” I asked, referring to the famous North Korean forward, and pointed at his drawing. The boy giggled and nodded to me. I guessed he probably hadn’t known that North Korea was crushed by Portugal with in a gruesome 7-0 match several days before in the World Cup.
Finally, with a bill of 50 North Korean won waved in hand, Gang urged us to leave. “She liked the 20 yuan bill with Mao’s portrait. It must be illegal though.” Gang explained. It is forbidden to trade for foreign currency in North Korea, as well as private transaction in food and gold supplies.
Even under such a strictly controlled economy, there could always be found some free markets operating in certain ways. As we went further north, there appeared numerous scattered lights around construction sites. Upon closer inspection, we found ourselves in the midst of many tiny stalls lit by the owners’ flashlights. We had found a black market. Surrounding the lights, people were exchanging various random goods, ranging from hairpins and pens, to pickles and grains.
Approaching a traditionally dressed old lady with blankets of kimchi on sale, I bumped into someone in the surrounding crowd, and we turned to each other at the same time. In front of me stood Han, face livid and eyes set on me in the orange glare from the old lady’s ad-hoc stall. Pointing to the kimchi with my eyes, I pretended in gleeful tones to cover the embarrassment: “Aha, are they any good, guide Han?”
We were taken back to the hotel along the way we came. Han was so enraged that he even threatened to not return our passport if we kept making troubles. However, we kept arguing that we wanted to have a closer look at the city, and after negotiation, to our surprise, Han agreed to take us around. It might have been because he was afraid we would sneak out again anyways, but we were still enthused.
This was such a unique privilege for the three of us that Han, with the company of the tour coordinator Eunhee, decided to drive us to “somewhere interesting”, as he described. After fifteen minutes, when our mini bus approached the Arch of Triumph, I saw something that I honestly did not even expect to see in that country: an amusement park. Before me was the liveliest and bustling scene I had yet witnessed in the whole trip. The park was filled with the jollification of thousands of people, lining up at limited facilities. At each attraction, streams of smiles radiated and whirled along with the colorful illuminations.
“It was recently established and is the largest in our country. The facilities were imported from Italy” Eunhee said, in fascinated tones. “There is a certain quota of admissions for every department in the city. I haven’t got a chance to have fun yet.”
Taking advantage of our privilege as foreign tourists, we bought our guides tickets as well. Eunhee pleasantly joined us to take a roller coaster ride. Han, however, bashfully refused the invitation, and we of course called him a coward. The roller coaster completely overthrew Eunhee’s previous stern visage as an introverted and graceful Korean lady when she screamed and laughed ten times louder than us three together.
Descending from the thrill ride, we found another phenomenon within the first that seemed inherently incompatible with this austere country: a fast food restaurant. Hot dogs, burgers, pancakes, soda and many other foods from the “hostile country” were on sale. Several well-dressed young ladies with were queuing for a meal that cost 450 won, which, as Eunhee explained, was two weeks’ salary for the saleswomen who served the food. I could not but imagine the disparity between those living inside and outside the capital.
Returning after our revelry past ten thirty, the Juche Tower had already gone dark. The park we had left would remain a glowing source of light for those gleeful faces we had met however, at least until midnight. Only two days later was the anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung.